Recently declassified documents about the National Security Agency’s massive data collection program revealed that the NSA has been annually collecting as many as 56,000 “wholly domestic” communications. This revelation comes as part of a now-declassified secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court opinion from 2011 on the matter. The opinion further states that the program, as originally planned, was unconstitutional.
These revelations strike at the core problem of the NSA spying program, which is a lack of oversight and accountability predicated by transparency. The American people, because of leaks by people such as Edward Snowden, are only now learning about the spying programs that have been violating our constitutional rights for years.
The fundamental lack of transparency in the program means that the American people can have no meaningful say in the program and cannot have informed opinions about the matter. In a democracy, the people need to make informed decisions about the methods and practices of their government. The United States federal government has not been honest with the American people about the extent to which the NSA is spying on Americans. Americans deserve the right to know what communications the NSA is tracking with or without warrants before deciding whether to vote for candidates that would allow these types of programs to continue.
Unfortunately, the federal government has made it impossible to fully determine the extent of NSA spying. When the Snowden leaks originally emerged, the U.S. federal government was quick to assure the American people that the NSA program was only being used to spy on international threats and not to violate the rights of American citizens. The most recently released documents state that domestic communications have been saved, however, and show that the government has not been entirely truthful about the NSA.
The press cannot independently determine the extent of the NSA spying because the Obama administration has become the most aggressive administration to punish leaks, according to ProPublica and The New York Times. The Obama administration has gone so far as to investigate a Fox News reporter in pursuit of a leak, violating First Amendment and Press Shield laws. This aggressive stance is the reason that Snowden had to flee to Russia and Attorney General Eric Holder had to assure the world that his government would not torture or execute Snowden if he was extradited back to the U.S. The independent press cannot act effectively if they cannot investigate or if confidential sources are too afraid to come forward.
Of course, government secrecy does serve legitimate purpose. Calls for transparency in the NSA affair should not be confused with demands for complete and total government transparency in all areas. The Atlantic’s Mark Bowden published an article accusing Snowden and recently convicted hacker Bradley Manning of leaking too much about the inner workings of the U.S. government. Unlike the Watergate and Pentagon Papers leaks, when whistleblowers Mark Felt and Daniel Ellsberg took specific documents and limited the scope of their leaks to specific and identifiable abuses of government power, Snowden and Manning released oceans of classified documents without specific concerns other than the general and necessary secrecy of certain functions within the U.S. government. But the NSA spying, for what is seems to be right now, needs to be understood and approved by voters before it can be allowed to continue.
The American people could approve of the way the NSA is spying on them and people around the world. The Foreign Affairs Journal recently reported that Americans are now as afraid of an imminent terrorist attack as we were after 9/11. American concern for security could trump the desire for privacy and constitutional rights, as it did during the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans or investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy in pursuing “communists.” If that is the case, then the American people need to be given the opportunity to vote to enact changes to allow the NSA program to continue. Until the federal government is open and honest about the method of surveillance, the amount of domestic surveillance and the effectiveness of the spying, however, America cannot approve of continued 1984-esque programs.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business).
Follow Dan on Twitter @ginger_breaddan